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Broken Politics: You Can Say that Again

April 11, 2011

Last Friday I wrote about how the rhetorically savvy can use speechlessness for emphasis Today I want to consider the opposite, how repetition can emphasize.  This makes common sense, so the rhetorical canon makes it complicated–definitions,  divisions, and degrees of repetition abound. I’ll focus on repetition that not only emphasizes but goes further, repetition that amplifies the meaning of a point.  Auxesis is the classical term.  I’ll focus on it because a) it’s super fun and b) Pres. Obama made use of it in his April 6 Remarks to the National Action Network Gala.  To wit:

I said that we were facing extraordinary challenges in this country, but that what was stopping us from solving them wasn’t a lack of policies; it wasn’t a lack of plans.  What was stopping us was a broken politics.  A broken politics in Washington — a politics that was all about the next election instead of the next generation; that was all about what we disagreed about instead of what we had in common; a politics that made us cynical about our ability to change this country.

Repetition à la auxesis means (to borrow Quinn’s metaphor) to walk the audience up a set of stairs and get them to a higher or more general point.  Obama does just that.  Once he defines the trouble—a broken politics—he explains its problems in increasingly wider spheres.

First Obama states a broken politics priorities “the next election” over “the next generation”. He aligns broken politics with what we might call party politics.  The scope of the problem is limited to a campaigning-not-legislating mentality.  It’s a problem concerning people facing reelection, and it’s potentially only a problem in campaign season (although reasonable people might ask when isn’t it campaign season these days).

His next phrase, however, expands the scope.  Broken politics also focus on “what we disagreed about instead of what we had in common” Obama claims, and by doing so he calls into question the entire form and substance of Congressional deliberation.  Now the problem is more than just campaigning.  There’s a problem with how Congress as a whole fails to meet its principal responsibility—sound debate about national policy.  Obama amplifies his defined trouble by expands its sphere of influence from individual campaign concerns to Congress-wide deliberation failures.

Obama’s last claim opens up the problem to everyone—“made us cynical” suggest it’s no longer the elected officials stained by broken politics but rather all of us Americans.  Broken politics spills over into the national mood and that, Obama suggests, weakens everyone.

In short, Obama uses repeated phrases “a broken politics” and “that was all about” not just to emphasize a point, but also to build up the widening, negative effects broken politics has on everyone.  He starts with a limited and likely accepted point: it’s bad politics to prioritize winning the election over helping the country.  The audience likely to grant that premise. Maybe winning the election helps the country, but don’t we all think, deep down, you’re supposed to serve some good higher than partisan electioneering?

So the audience grants that first assertion and climbs, so to speak, onto the first stair.  Next, the audience hears the same form of language, in other words, is presented with another step.  Perhaps the audience instinctively keeps climbs, perhaps they agree with Obama’s point about congressional deliberation.  Regardless, the repetition encourages the audience to keep doing what it was doing–climbing up the argument with Obama.  So the audience accepts the second, more contentious claim.  In for two, why not for three;  swept up by the motion of repetition language it is easy to accept Obama’s third, least certifiable claim—broken politics poisons the country’s mood.  Couldn’t the poisoned mood have been unemployment levels, ten years of war, rising gas prices, Russell Brand over-exposure? Only if we pause midstep to consider.  And that’s a difficult kind of balancing act.  Repetition helps to keep the audience moving forward in the speech and upwards with Obama’s claims.

Both speechlessness and repetition have their problems.  Remaining silent can give your opponents the chance to put words in your mouth or frame the situation as best suits them.  Repetition badly done can come off as condescending, didactic or too overtly rhetorical, and thus lose its persuasive qualities by seeming too contrived.

Done well, though, you’ve got yourself a speech of the people, by the people, (as well as) for the people.

If you want to know more:

  • Definitions and quotes come from Arthur Quinn’s Figures of Speech:  Sixty Ways to Turn a Phrase.  For caveats about rhetorical distinctions among classical figures, see my second note in the 6 April 2011 post.
  • Chaïm Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, in their perennially popular The New Rhetoric, claim that repetition serves multiple purposes: it increase presence (the reality of “a bad politics” here) as well as amplifies a theme and make distinctions between what could seem the same thing.  See Section 42 “Figures of Choice, Presence and Communion” for further explanation.
  • Transcript of Obama’s remarks can be found here.  These remarks offer themselves up to numerous other rhetorical analytical lenses, from the fine-grained analysis of parallelism to the more theoretical consideration of dissociation of concepts (perhaps along the philosophical pair of specific | general) but that is food for another post.

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